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Public Housing and a Local Older Adult Community

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Transcription of the phone interview with Portia Meachem from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC)

In your general opinion, how are older adults in public housing treated by the community?

Portia Meachem: The community understands that they are living in mixed population buildings. The mixed population buildings now consist of your elderly and your non-elderly, which may be disabled.  So I think it’s a thing of educating, not with just the residents but also educating the community itself to understand what the older population is going through.

And what are some of those challenges older adults face by living in public housing or mixed housing?

Portia Meachem: One: not having family nearby, wanting to reach out to family. That was one reason we implemented the computer labs with Internet so residents would not have to leave the building. The other is getting out to health facilities, even though they may be in the vicinity, a lot of people may not be able to get out to get to them.

As far as Internet use, are these older adults trained at all how to use the Internet?

Portia Meachem: Yes we have a computer company that we’ve been working with for almost 10 years now. They provide technical support…the Internet is another tool we’ve been using to teach them about affordable health care.

What are some of the health needs that older adults in public housing specifically have?

Portia Meachem: You always know number one is healthy eating, a lot of them have high blood pressure, diabetes; a lot of educational information is geared around that.

Currently do you have any relationship or partnership with any health centers in your area?

Portia Meachem: We work very closely with the Baltimore City Health Department, all of the local hospitals because a lot of the developments are spread throughout metro Baltimore. So wherever a development may be located, they try to work with that hospital or facility within that area. But a lot of the sites do work with the health department.

Do you have any partnerships with the senior center or any [organization] like that?

Portia Meachem: We have senior centers within the communities. It depends on where the actual site is located but they will actually come pick them up, take them to the center and bring them back.

At different sites, is there a chance for older adults to have their own organization outside of the resident leader organization?

Portia Meachem: If they choose to but the other program I’ve been working with is called the Buildings Community Initiative. I have been trying to implement community boards. We are trying to form community again within the mixed population buildings. We don’t want to separate the elderly from the non-elderly; we are trying to bring them together as one.

Portia Meachem: But yes, they can go outside in the community and participate in any activities they’d like but we try to keep activities within the building so that everyone can participate.

What are some of the activities that you have for (older adult) residents?

Portia Meachem: The one site I was mentioning to you, Vans Story, they have this Circle Club and it’s a mixture of males and females who actually provide activities for the entire building; once a year they put a luncheon together and this is all on their doing, no help with it. They have bingo that goes on, they have ice cream socials, exercise classes, they have monthly meetings for the tenants to find out what’s going on in community and on the outside of the community. They have game boards, different games, cards, checkers, things like that.

For your staff do they receive any kind of cultural competency training dealing with older adult residents?

Portia Mechem: They go to training all through the year, they get certificates for it. The service coordinators are always given training, so the training is always ongoing. Even on the affordable health care they go to workshops, so they can learn what’s taking place so that they will be able to explain it to the residents.

As far as relationships between you and the city, are there any type of initiatives out there now to change the model that you are using or do you feel very comfortable with the model you have implemented in Baltimore?

Portia Meachem: We have tried smoke-free, we had a three month grant. We chose three developments, we went around and did workshops, we listened to them, we did focus groups to hear what they had to say.

Portia Meachem: Also, we’ve done Healthy Heart, we’ve tried to convince residents to take charge of their health and start eating differently, quite a few of the sites have gardens growing fruits and vegetables. I think we’re getting to that healthy eating [stage] and we’re always advertising about healthy lifestyles, not just for the residents, but for even staff too.

What has the response been from residents on some of these programs?

Portia Meachem: It’s new, you know. They have been eating what they want, not worrying about the high blood pressure, diabetes and stuff so it’s a learning process. It’s a learning process that we just have to constantly work at.

In closing, would you like to relay anything to health providers or to people who don’t understand the challenges older adults in public housing face?

Portia Meachem: We have to understand that they may not get the meaning of the health care [changes] as you and I would. We have to take our time to explain it to them, have patience with them and make sure by asking them questions, ‘did you understand this particular part?’. I think working with the elderly, we don’t call them older adults, elderly, is that you have to have the patience and give them that respect and courtesy. Because we all want to one day reach that age and receive the same thing back.